Explore a California oasis of World War II airplanes and memorabilia.
By Richard Bauman
The Palm Springs Air Museum could fbe more broadly defined as a World War II museum. In addition to its impressive variety of planes, most of which saw combat during the war, the museum bulges with many other facets of the conflict that rocked the world from 1939 to 1945.
If you have even a smidgeon of interest in the World War II era, this is the place to be. If you want firsthand accounts of what the war was like on both the home front and the fighting front, be sure to visit.
From the minute you walk into the museum, it’s evident that plenty of thought went into the displays. Each plane has ample space around it, so that even with a crowd, it doesn’t feel crowded. The aircraft are polished to a spotless shine. Each is accompanied by complete descriptive materials, often including photos of similar planes in combat situations.
The B-25 Mitchell bomber on display was delivered to the Air Force in June 1945, and after the war it served at various bases. The P-63 King Cobra is an unusual fighter aircraft. Its engine is behind the pilot, and its propeller driveshaft was straddled by the pilot. However, this plane has a door for entry and exit “” the only fighter plane so equipped “” so pilots didn’t have to climb into the cockpit.
Knowledgeable docents readily share additional information about pilots and aircraft. More often than not, their knowledge comes from firsthand experience “” many of them flew in the planes, worked around them, or helped build them during the war.
During a visit to the museum, I talked with a docent about the P-51 Mustang, and its combat history and lore. He allowed that the P-51 was a good plane, but added: “There were better planes than the Mustang, but it had better PR than they did.”
If docents and display materials leave you hungry for more information, stop at one of the TV monitors scattered throughout the museum that show documentaries and other videos about various aircraft. Plus, the museum library maintains a collection of war-era magazines and books that visitors are welcome to review.
The museum has two display hangars, each dedicated to a different theater of the war “” Pacific and European. Regardless of which hangar you are in, you’ll become immersed in its historic aircraft. The Pacific hangar covers mostly naval aviation and has a preponderance of carrier-based fighters and fighter-bombers. The European hangar emphasizes Army Air Corps fighters and bombers.
Some air museums have a plane or two from the World War II era that is still airworthy. At the Palm Springs Air Museum, most of the craft are flown at least a couple of times a month. Some are flown at air shows around the country. And some are even movie stars. The museum’s Spitfire and P-40 fighters and the B-25 Mitchell bomber appeared in the movie Pearl Harbor. Other planes were seen in Forever Young, Iron Eagle III, and Winds of War, among other films.
The museum also has a large collection of war-era memorabilia. Framed front pages of newspapers from the war years, emblazoned with huge headlines announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor and V-E and V-J Days, for example, line the walls in both hangars. Pages describe the ebb and flow of the war, as well as major events at home.
There are usually some classic cars on display at the museum also. When I visited, a burgundy 1941 Studebaker Commander was parked beneath the wing of the B-25. Restored to perfection, the gleaming auto looked right at home with the aircraft.
Displays also illustrate aspects of the war, at home and in the war zones. In the War in Europe hangar, many exhibits look like the front of Quonset huts, those horizontal, half-cylinder buildings made from corrugated steel, which could be erected quickly and used by the military for everything from shops to offices to living quarters “” on U.S. bases and in war areas, too.
One exhibit depicts women at war “” those who served in the field and those who took over for men in defense factories. Women who remained homemakers also are recognized. Many consumer goods such as gasoline, rubber products, sugar, and meat were rationed during the war. Ration books and instructions for their use can be viewed.
A movie theater located between the European and Pacific hangars plays films about War War II, most of them actually made during the war. Many of these films reminded wartime audiences what the military was fighting for, what was at stake, and why sacrifices at home were necessary.
The museum’s Pearl Harbor display is one of the first things you see as you step into the Pacific hangar. It is a detailed model of Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. An audio description references the map and numbered sites on it to chronicle the events of December 7, 1941, which helps visitors grasp the destruction and scope of the attack.
A nearby wall display contains several unusual artifacts from the raid: a singed Japanese parachute and chunks of metal from a downed Japanese plane.
Former President George H.W. Bush was a Navy pilot before and during World War II, and a display traces his military career, including a list of the six different aircraft he flew. Visitors can view photos of the craft, from a rickety NK-1 biplane trainer to the carrier-based, top-of-the-line F4U Corsair he flew at the end of his naval aviation career.
When General Douglas MacArthur left the Philippines for Australia in 1942, he announced, “I shall return.” The museum has photos of MacArthur wading ashore from a landing craft as he fulfilled his promise to liberate the Philippines. A photomural depicts “History’s Largest Naval Battle: The Battle for Leyte Gulf,” which took place in October 1944.
It’s the backdrop for “Warship Row,” which contains detailed models of the various ships used by the United States during the war, from battleships to submarines. Cutaway sections provide glimpses of the interiors of these vessels, too.
On the tarmac at the rear of the museum building is a B-17 “Flying Fortress.” This was the workhorse bomber in the European campaign. More than 12,000 were built before and during the war, but today only a handful are operational, and this is one of them. For a small additional fee, you can tour “Miss Angela” from the flight deck to the tail gun. It’s well worth the price.
“Miss Angela” and other planes at the museum boast fine examples of nose art. While not strictly a World War II phenomenon, this form of expression reached its peak during the war years. Hardly a bomber flew into combat that didn’t have some sort of nose art, and some fighter aircraft were similarly adorned.
As the term suggests, nose art typically was painted near the nose of the plane. Usually the plane’s ground crew chief was given the naming honors. His own name, hometown, wife’s name, or sweetheart’s name often influenced his choice of the moniker, and it was painted with some sort of artwork, often a scantily clad female. Thus, “Daddy’s Delight,” “Knock-Out Dropper,” “Wondrous Wanda,” and hundreds of other names distinguished the planes from one another.
The museum’s B-25 bomber features “Mitch the Witch II” in large script, along with a huge American flag and a shapely “witch” in red garb and a red pointed hat. The “Mitch,” in this case, stood for Mitchell bomber, another designation for the B-25. The P-63 King Cobra mentioned earlier has “Pretty Polly” emblazoned on the nose cowling on its left side, along with the image of a young blonde woman.
Not all nose art includes women. For example, one of the P-51 Mustangs on display actually has two names: “Dakota Kid II” and “Long Island Kid,” but no images. On an F7F Tiger Cat fighter-bomber in the Pacific hangar is the image of a smiling tiger wearing a crown, with “King of the Cats” in large gold letters above it.
There surely are larger air museums, but few convey the amount of World War II aviation history that this museum does. The Palm Springs Air Museum is a great place to see planes “” and also to learn about them and the years of conflict during World War II.
The Palm Springs Air Museum is located at the east side of the Palm Springs Regional Airport, at 745 N. Gene Autry Trail in Palm Springs, California. It is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (closed for Thanksgiving and Christmas). Admission is $10 for adults age 17 to 65. Senior and military discounts are available. Admission is $5 for children ages 7 to 16, and free for children 6 and under. A special family package price of $20 for up to a family of five (two adults and three children) is available.
Call (760) 778-6262 or visit www.psam.org for more information.
For ideas about other Palm Springs-area attractions, including the General Patton Memorial Museum, visit the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism Web site at www.palm-springs.org, or see the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce site, www.pschamber.org; or, phone the chamber at (760) 325-1577.